Ethical dimensions of sustainable development and their relevance to Organisations: A case study of Coltan Mining Industry

Coltan mining


Sustainability and its use in enhancement of a sustainable development has become a major concern in the world economy. Many international documents including Agenda 21 on ethics highlights how governments and corporate bodies may achieve sustainable development. One of the strategies suggested by the document is ethical responsibility of business which ensures that organisations pursue development while at the same time protecting the environment. Due to emerging concepts of global democracy, civil society, citizenship and governance in their global perspective; ethics has become an important means which involves individual and organisational commitment to protect the environment adequately. This leads to sustainability which is a positive value in development. Ethics involves respecting the interests of all and protecting the interests of the global environment so as to promote a sustainable development.

This paper proposes that practices result in sustainable development in the economy through the maintenance and enhancement of a sustainable environment.  It will identify various ethical dimensions of sustainable development; the various ethical issues that influence sustainable development. In order to achieve this, the paper will use a case study of coltan mining industry. Coltan is a dull metallic ore from which the mineral components of tantalum and niobium are extracted. Tantalum is use to manufacture tantalum capacitors which are used in some electronic products. Australia is the leading coltan mining country of the world. I have chosen Coltan mining as the case study industry because it is one of the activities which affect the environment. The environment is the main component of the global economy whose sustainability has a direct impact on the sustainability of development. Therefore, it is important to use a case study industry whose main activities affect the environment. Coltan mining is one of such industries. Coltan mining process is an environmentally hazardous practice, while Coltan itself is a toxic contaminant. Therefore, Coltan mining industry exhibits ethical issues which impact on development sustainability and how such ethical issues may be addressed in order to enhance sustainability and sustainable development.

Ethical issues in the Coltan mining industry

African Coltan mining industry is tantamount to human rights violations. Apart from having a negative impact on the environment, Coltan mining in Africa has also resulted in human rights violations. Melcher et al. (2008) suggest that Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s leading producer of “blood coltan”; Coltan mined in a conflict zone. Fighting, wars and crime are experienced in Congo due to mining of several minerals including Coltan. The mining of the ore has led to violation of human rights, an issue which has distorted social order in the country. Apart from conflicts, other human rights ethical concerns associated with coltan mining include systematic exploitation of workers. According to the UN, it choosing one’s employer and working conditions is a human right. However, this is not the case in conflict Coltan mining areas such as Congo. In these regions, some indigenous residents are forcibly engaged in mining activities (Nest, 2011). For instance, in Colombia and Puinawai residents claim that children are forced to work at Coltan mines while they are being guarded with a gunpoint by militia groups.

Coltan mining in conflict areas is therefore associated with poor working conditions for labourers. In most cases, it is illegally practiced by illicit groups such as drug cartels. The unregulated nature of coltan mining provides a wide avenue for exploitation of the local residents of the mining areas and other labourers who work forcibly in the coltan mines (Nest, 2011). This violation of human rights may be considered as an ethical issue as it goes against the principles of ethical behaviour which requires individuals and organisations to care for the interests of others while pursuing their objectives. One of the ethical principles applicable business ethics is respect and care for community life. The forceful use of labourers in coal mines, conflicts, fights and other practices that may result in violations of human rights are basically against the principle of respect and care for community life. It is a true indication of ethical concern which may impact negatively in the sustainable development of the economies involved. For instance, Democratic republic of Congo is one of the richest countries with a lot of mineral ores but its economy is not actually sustainable. Most of the incomes of the country are often committed to fight against militia groups, criminals and other illegal groups which are in control of the country’s Coltan mines. This is a clear indication that ethical behaviour of organisations and governments contribute to sustainable development.

Another ethical concern that is evident in coal mining industry is environmental concern. This type of concern is broad; there are several environmental concerns that are associated with coltan mining. These issues are evident in several mining experiences of coltan miners and mining companies. The coltan mining activity in itself is hazardous to the environment, and cause negative impacts on the environment which is meant to support various economic activities. This makes the environment not to become sustainable for effective economic activities, hence inhibits sustainable economic development in the affected economies. This mineral ore, just like any other metal is a toxic contaminant which may contaminate the air and cause air pollution. The mining process may also lead to the contamination of water supply due to its toxic nature. As a result, the ore may be considered as being environmentally unfriendly. Coal mining organisation proceed with coal mining with little efforts to minimize its environmental impacts because they are more concerned with their own profitability objectives rather than the interests of their stakeholders including members of the community within which it operates (Engel and Engel, 1990). This organisational goal and objective is against ethical principles of business and does not only result in unsustainable general economy but also impacts negatively on the performance of the responsible organisations in the long run.

Mining of coal also leads to the destruction of the environment through destruction of stream beds and forest covers in the surrounding environment. These mining activities are not sustainable, yet the coltan mining industries in developing countries are mainly unregulated. Therefore, the unsustainable activities are carried out without regard to the impacts of the activities on the environment. This results in environmental destruction and negative impacts on sustainable development. Actually, there is no sustainable development in situations of environmentally unsustainable activities (Dobson, 1998). On the contrary, an ethical behaviour which takes care of the environment should have been initiated in coltan mining areas so as to increase the effectiveness of the sustainability of the environment. A sustainable environment where workers experience good working conditions and members of the society live with good quality of life and welfare is important for sustainable development.

Diaz-Struck and Poliszu (2012) suggest that the deep forest covers of national parks and reserves in Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia are the main mining areas for illegal coltan miners. The affected national parks and reserves include Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo and Puinawai National Reserve in Colombia. These illicit coltan mining activities often affect tourism activities in such national parks and reserves. Apart from making the environment unsustainable for a sustainable development, the coltan mining therefore affects other sectors of the economy (such as tourism) which could have boosted development.

The mining techniques used for coltan mining in developing countries are the methods used for gold mining in 1800s (United Nations, 2001).  This involves hard and dangerous panning for ores in large craters in stream beds. Even with these hard and dangerous tasks, an average worker often produces less than a kilogram of coltan every day. This is an indication of unsustainable economic activity which leads to detrimental environmental effects at low cost.  Low returns against massive environmental problems may be associated with a low level of sustainable development. A sustainable development is enhanced by an economic condition whose benefits are more than the costs incurred. In the case of unethical coltan mining practices where the environment is destructed for a small amount of returns, development cannot be sustainable as much as we can also observe that the environment in the same case is not sustainable. Sustainable development occurs in a sustainable environment and a sustainable environment is only possible if organizations, government institutions and other economic agents take responsibility of their economic activities and engage in ethical practices.

Ethics as fundamental dimensions of sustainable development

A sustainable development is a socially responsible economic development which is attained while the economic players attempt to protect the resource base and the environment for the benefit of future generations. This can be achieved through a wide participation in the economy (Luijk, 2000). The first step in achieving a sustainable development is to draw up a sustainable development strategy at national, regional and organisational levels. A national development strategy enables the policy making agents from different sectors to be informed about sustainable development approaches that may be beneficial to the society. The strategy also provides a framework for a systematic approach which involves an institutionalized process of participation, consultation, and consensus building.

There are three pillars of sustainable development which need to be put into consideration while developing a sustainable development strategy. The strategy addresses social, environmental and economic issues. The three pillars of sustainable development should be addressed in a coherent and systematic manner so as to enable policy makers to set priorities to these pillars. While addressing these three pillars, a sustainable development strategy will obviously include ethics and responsibility in national and organisational levels. Organisations and governments which set and implement strong ethical policies are able to achieve organisational objectives and sustainable development.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) requires that a sustainable development strategy should integrate economic social, economic and environmental concerns (UN DESA, 2002). The requirement further suggests that a sustainable development should contain a long term perspective with ethical concerns to future generations. An ethically responsible strategy should also allow for participation and give stakeholders a sense of ownership. Such an ethical approach to sustainable development is more successful if it is backed by a political commitment. In the case of Coltan mining, the violation of human rights inherent in the mining areas could be avoided if there was a political commitment to protect the rights of the citizens of the countries affected by the conflicts related to Coltan mining. A sustainable development which has an ethical concern in perspective can be able to develop capacity and generate an enabling environment where social and economic activities are carried out appropriately to boost sustainable development.

A sustainable development strategy can also be enhanced if there is a constant monitoring and assessment procedure to ensure that it is in line with the set goals and is able to achieve its objectives (Beschorner, 2006). An education process and a sustainable development culture should also be adopted in order to enable all stakeholders to understand the need of the strategy and their roles in promoting a sustainable development. Ethical dimensions of sustainable development should be communicated to all economic agents through a rigorous training and education programme. This will ensure that all individuals carrying out a given economic activity such as Coltan mining understand the risks of going against ethical behaviours. In order to promote a sustainable development, there should also be a balance between budgetary allocation and strategy priorities so as to ensure that the most crucial pillars of sustainable development are prioritized and funded sufficiently. This may be anchored in a sound economic analysis and feasibility study.

Ethical dimension is not the only dimension underlying a sustainable development strategy. However, it may be considered as the most fundamental dimension because sustainable development is concerned with developing a socially responsible economy, and ethics is all about doing the right thing; doing everything responsibly (Beschorner, 2006). If everything is done right for the good of everyone, then the benefit will be felt through a sustainable development for all. Ethics consists of a set of values which should be upheld in order to enhance the welfare of future generations which is a major concern for a sustainable development. Responsibility for future generations is the key concern for all economies.

Science and technology have played a crucial role in sustainability over the years. Therefore, they should also be part of an ethical dimension. Scientific and technological advancements should in essence carry features that are able to improve the quality of lives of the current generations without causing potential threats to the lives of the future generations. Ethics also enhances the sharing of knowledge and ideas through a wide participation of stakeholders in the process of sustainable development. An ethically responsive economy involves sharing of information, being transparent and participating so as to promote sustainable development. These ethical concerns are based on the fact that all stakeholders have the right to, and should make informed choices.

Ethical dimension of sustainable development does not work in isolation. Instead, it works in close association with other dimensions. For instance, political dimension can be used along with an ethical dimension so as to attain a sustainable development. A political commitment is required to develop ethical values for a sustainable development. This involves the participation of all political classes and layers of authority including the state and the local government. A political process also enables a consensus building on how natural and economic resources may be utilized in order to achieve a sustainable development (Diaz-Struck and Poliszu, 2012). This process may enable Coltan miners to understand how they may utilize Coltan which is an important economic resource.

Public participation is an important aspect of decision making which results in sustainable development. Ethics may be applied in public participation such that all stakeholders are given a chance to participate in decision making and avoid overlapping of responsibilities and violations of human rights. These stakeholders should be able to access justice. Justice in this case is based on ethical grounds and perspectives. Public participation enables citizens to participate in decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their future generations. Therefore, it seems plausible and ethically right for the public to be involved in decision making so as to shape their welfare and the welfare of their future generations. This results in a sustainable development in the economies involved in the participation.

Relevance of ethical dimensions of sustainable development to organisations

Ethics play a crucial role in the achievement of organisational objectives. Robertson and Crittenden (2003) suggest that strong ethical policies which go beyond the requirements of the law often add value to the brands of organisations. On the contrary, doing the wrong or unethical things may lead organisations to invoke social, environmental and economic damages to the community. This failure to behave ethically will also impact negatively on the performance of the organisations in the long run. In turn, poor performance results in failure to achieve organisational objectives.

An organisation should develop and demonstrate high ethical standards in order to achieve bottom line benefits for the organisation. However, this may not be achieved if an ethical approach is not adopted. Developing an ethical approach within an organisation should start from the top and communicated down the organisational levels. Therefore, a sound management which cares about the needs of the organisation and its stakeholders should be put in place. If the management is not committed to the welfare of the community and the sustainability of the environment, the organisation will fail in developing a sustainable development (Dobson, 1998). As a result, the organisation will also fail to achieve its organisational objectives and its competitive advantage may decline compared to other competitors in the market.

Monitoring the environmental and social impacts of an organisation is important in maintaining ethical standards that may result in a sustainable environment and enhanced welfare of the society. This requires the adoption of high quality management information on environmental, ethical and social impacts of the organisation. An organisation’s management should also incorporate communications and reporting on sustainability which address both green agenda and clear evidence of positive impact on the society, organisational returns and the environment. This communication system should also outline how negative effects of ethical dimensions may be addressed. Ethical issues should also be observed in the accounting practices of the organisation such that the management accountants have an ethical responsibility to develop an ethical culture that does not permit such practices as bribery and frauds (Luijk, 2000). This increases accountability, reduces costs incurred by the organisation and increases the organisation’s profitability. The organisation will also be taking care of the interests of shareholders and creditors by practicing transparency and accountability in its management.

An ethical approach within an organisation may also be further enhanced through the ethical concern of the senior managers. They should demonstrate ethical approach as a way of leading by example so that all other stakeholders responsible for implementing ethical approaches in the organisation can appreciate the need of doing so. Ethical approach needs to be part of the organisation’s organisational culture and should involve all members of the organisation (Beschorner, 2006). Junior and middle managers are rewarded for taking an ethical direction and promoting an appropriate organisational culture.


Sustainable development requires an integration of good ethics dimension and compliance with the set laws and regulations. This ensures that the environment is protected, the economy is kept stable and the welfare of the society and the vulnerable groups is upheld. Sustainable development is enhanced through responsibility. This is an ethical aspect which applies to the quality of the environment, utilization of economic and natural resources, political commitment, education and intergenerational concerns. Responsibility is a key element in ethics, and if it is upheld by all organisations, institutions and government, sustainable development will be enhanced. In this regard, ethics is a key aspect of sustainable development and organisational performance. Ethics should therefore be integrated into the business models of all organisations, used to implement organisational strategy and applied in the organisations’ decision making process. Ethics should also be incorporated into the national and regional sustainable development strategies of nations. This should attract political support and commitment from relevant authorities, and public participation.


References list

Beschorner, T. (2006). The Case of Discourse Ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 66(1), 127-139.

Diaz-Struck, E. and Poliszuk, J. (2012). Venezuela emerges as new source of ‘conflict minerals’ iWatch News (the Center for Public Integrity) 4 March 2012. Accessed on April 22, 2013 from new-source-conflict-minerals.

Dobson, A. (1998). Justice and the Environment: Conceptions of Environmental Sustainability and Theories of Distributive Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Engel, J.R. and Engel J.G., eds. (1990). Ethics of development and environment: Global Challenge, International Responses. London: Belhaven.

Luijk, H. (2000). In search of Instruments: Business and ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 27(1), 3-8.

Melcher, F., Sitnikova, M. Graupner, T., Martin, N., Oberthür, T. Henjes-Kunst, F. Gäbler, E.,      Gerdes, A., Brätz, H. Davis, D., and Stijn Dewaele (2008). “Fingerprinting of conflict minerals: columbite-tantalite (“coltan”) ores”, SGA News, 23(1), 7-13.

Nest, M. (2011). Coltan. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.

Robertson, C. & Crittenden, W. (2003). Mapping Moral Philosophies: Strategic Implications for Multinational Firms. Strategic Management Journal, 24(4), 385-392.

UN DESA (2002). “Guidance in Preparing National Sustainable Development Strategies,” In Report of the International Forum on National Sustainable Development Strategies. Accra, Ghana, 7–9 November 2001. New York: United Nations. Accessed on April 23,     2013 from:

United Nations (2001). Security Council condemns illegal exploitation of Democratic Republic of Congo’s natural resources. Press release, UN. 3 May 2001. Accessed on April 22, 2012 from

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